Starring: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, Gucci Mane, Heather Morris, Jeff Jarrett
Running Time: 94 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
What starts out looking like it's going to be Project X meets Girls Gone Wild, Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers quickly evolves into a visual ballet of debaucherous hedonism dripping in violence and scathing social commentary. Gorgeously shot and masterfully edited, it's the first film of 2013 that deserves to be remembered come awards time, especially in key technical categories. But the bigger question is how Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez and Ashley Benson will explain this to their parents. Hopefully, they'll do it by telling them they actually participated in the creation of art. Their casting isn't a stunt, as within minutes you completely forget who you're watching and are transported down a sadistic hellhole you know from the beginning can't end in a real victory for anyone.
For those like me who are only mildly aware of these actresses by the their squeaky reputations, the film accomplishes its goal of temporarily minimizing (if not outright eliminating) the eye rolling that usually accompanies the mere mention of their names. When you make serious choices you get taken seriously. At least for 90 minutes. But the most pleasant surprise is how no concessions are made to make this more mainstream or commercial because of who's in it and what it's about. And it isn't just "about" a spring break gone very bad. It feels bigger than that. And badder. The notion that youth is wasted on the young has never rang as true as it does here.
Longing to escape their boring, small-town existence, friends and college students Faith (Gomez), Candy (Hudgens), Brit (Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) aim to earn enough to go on spring break. Falling short on funds, but armed with squirt guns and a hammer, a ski-masked Brit and Candy end up robbing a fast-food restaurant with Cotty as their getaway driver. As the youngest and most inexperienced, the naive, religious Faith is like a baby deer caught in headlights, but agrees to go on the trip anyway for the experience. It's an experience that goes south in a hurry as the girls drink, do drugs and engage in wild sexual behavior before being arrested and falling in with a drug dealing, murderous rapper named Alien (James Franco) who crosses the wrong people. The girls came for the memories and they'll get them, provided that they're able to live long enough to tell anybody about it.
The exact moment when the movie starts to really become something is when the girls are bailed out of prison and step outside to meet the man responsible for it. They now belong to Alien. Brit, Candy and Cotty, who enjoyed robbing the restaurant entirely too much, are already ripe for the picking by the time this thug gets his claws into them, and they're more than willing to give his dangerous and exciting criminal lifestyle a test drive. Faith is a far different story, and much of that is laid out in the film's opening minutes when she's lectured by her youth pastor (pro wrestler Jeff Jarrett, surprisingly believable) about the sins she's unknowingly about to engage in with her delinquent friends.
Casting Gomez as a girl torn between a religious upbringing and desperately wanting to fit in was probably an easy call, but an inspired one nonetheless. She also looks all of about 12, which makes the seemingly angelic and uncorruptable Faith's potential descent into hedonism all the more shocking and disturbing when it arrives. While her heart's really not into it, the other three are clearly further along the path to amorality and one of the film's biggest questions is who decides to take the bus home and who stays back to play the odds that they'll survive when the bullets start flying.
Calling a group of actresses are interchangeable is usually considered insulting but here it's a compliment since each of them perfectly fulfills their specific requirement for the story. Korine moves them as game pieces across his board with none upstaging any of the others as they work in synchronized harmony right up until the end, which comes sooner for some than others. By the time we get to that point, it's clear who the standouts are. Of the four, Hudgens and Benson stand to get the biggest career bump from this while Gomez will likely revert back to being Selena Gomez, and the largely unknown but shockingly good Rachel Korine already has a great gig appearing in her husband's movies. In a perfect world, these actresses would make choices as captivating as this every time out but the reality remains that true risk taking roles don't come along often enough. Hopefully, it's not just a one-off.
But it's the unrecognizably grilled-out, cornrowed James Franco steals the whole thing out from under all of them with his craziest, most immersive performance yet, which says a lot considering his career trajectory both on and off the screen. Looking like a cross between rapper Riff Raff and Kevin Federline, his Scarface-obsessed Alien alternates between being completely terrifying and downright hilarious. It combines the best of all Francos, proving that when he gets serious about disappearing into a role, few are more interesting or as far-reaching as a performer. You can't even believe it's him, and as uphill a battle as it seems to be, a supporting nomination definitely seems worth fighting for.
Alien's arrival marks the picture's transition into a hallucinatory dream, or more accurately, a feverish nightmare. Much of this can also be attributed to Korine's editing, which seamlessly interweaves flashbacks and flashforwards into key scenes, culminating in the film's most visually stunning sequence, as an oceanfront piano singalong to Britney Spears' "Everytime" is intercut with a blood-soaked killing spree. When people talk about this movie, it'll be that montage and these sun-drenched images they're referring to. Credit cinematographer Benoit Debie for lensing the best looking film of the year, as well as composer Cliff Martinez and Skillrex for providing the hypnotic score. But the only thing more exhilarating than watching that scene might be imagining Spears watching it, with all the satiric nuance behind its usage flying right over her head. She should pay Korine for using it. When Alien calls Spears a "great girl" we have no doubt he absolutely means it, even as we're certain the movie does not.
The biggest hurdle facing the film is figuring out the audience it's supposed to be for. But does that even matter? Teen girls naturally gravitate toward these actresses while only serious adult film buffs would be interested in the latest directed by Harmony Korine, whose work is legitimately eccentric and inaccessible to put it lightly. He cleverly negotiates his way around this, tricking the former into watching a highbrow arthouse film, while still reassuring the latter that, despite its cast and plot, they've come to the right place. The casting is less a stunt than a brilliantly controlled experiment, placing actresses who are hard to take seriously under normal circumstances into the hands of a filmmaker who forces us to at gunpoint.
Asking how far as a culture we're willing to go while also questioning just how much America's parameters have changed, the biggest argument against the film is that despite its highly stylized aesthetic, it's still just about what it's about: spring break. And that's exactly it, as the closing voiceover disturbingly reminds us. Spring Breakers pushes Ebert's famous theory that a movie's not what it's about, but how, to its breaking point. And then it dares to push some more.